I started smoking when I was sixteen years old for the best reason anyone can start smoking: to be cool. And back then it was cool. I hung out with the older punk rocker kids at my high school, eighteen year olds outfitted with ripped Dead Kennedys t-shirts, thrift store blue jeans, and black leather bracelets adorned with metal studs. I wore the same uniform, typically all black, with a mess of blue hair that, on the rare occasions I wasn’t too lazy, I would glue and spray into four inch spikes all across my head. The band logos that were emblazoned on my chest were enough to catch the older kids’ attention, and within days of my freshman year of high school I was one of the gang. They had cars, they had girlfriends and boyfriends, they had an unmistakable sense of cool about them. They got detentions, wore sunglasses in class, and drank beer. They took trips to porn stores in other states, they went to the Wisconsin Dells on whims, and, most importantly, they smoked cigarettes. This was the one thing that was always around. In class they would bum each other Marlboro Reds, Camel Turkish Silvers, or, on rare occasions, Kools. They wouldn’t be a foot out of the door after school was over before lighting up and being chased off school property by the security guard. Their cars would have a thick air of stale smoke and the piles of butts lined the ashtray even though they religiously pitched them out of the windows at police cars or jocks.
Dave was my best friend. He came up to me in my freshman Spanish class to say “Fuck yeah, Anti-Flag!” with a brown finger pointed at my chest. We found out that our mothers worked together and drank together. We were both half Hispanic. We could both grow facial hair; Dave’s wispy sideburns that almost went all the way to his jaw bone, and my moustache that I could get to an almost dark line if I didn’t shave for a month. I would tag along with Dave everywhere. Punk rock shows in people’s basements, twenty four hour diners, random road trips to the Mississippi River. And he would drive and smoke cigarettes. Always sharing, he would look at me and say “WYL! SQUARE!?” every time. I never understood why he would call them “squares” but it didn’t really matter. I was trying to fit in so I would never ask. But smoking seemed like a big step for me. I grew up in the era of “Truth” ads, of health classes showing cancerous lungs, of my parents telling me if I smoked they would kill me, and with a few dead relatives, their deaths attributed to the pack and a half a day that they would consume. So I said no. For two years, I would continue to say no.
My first girlfriend and I had started dating around the same time I met Dave; the beginning of my freshman year and her junior year. As time passed, the obligatory talks of college, and the trips that it would take to see each other, and the never-vocalizing-but-subtly-questioning issues of faithfulness. After a blow out at Applebee’s (over what is lost to the history books, or at least the poor waitress who had to deal with it), we decided to call it quits. She wrote me a long letter, seven or eight pages that I read just the first paragraph of after we broke up. I still wonder what it said. I wasn’t overly emotional about it. I was just ready to go be a sixteen-year-old in the summer. After I threw the letter away, I called Dave to demand a trip to Wisconsin to buy fireworks.
It was in the car that he asked, once again, if I would like a cigarette. And I did. And I smoked that cigarette, and I smoked another cigarette, and before the end of the night I had to buy Dave a new pack because I had learned how to chain smoke. Only a few of those pillars of smoke had made their way into my lungs, but as I got out of his car and took the back door into my house, I felt like I was going to die. The cold sweats started, the rooms got harder to walk through as I got dizzier, and my stomach started thrashing about. My breathing was hard and every exhale smelled like smoke, making the whole situation worse. I spent that night on my bathroom floor, and the next day, after washing the puke that came in the night off of myself, I went out and found a mom and pop gas station to buy cigarettes at without an ID.
I wasn’t stressed out. I wasn’t mad at my ex, or trying to ignore my problems. I was just trying to get a new persona to land myself a new girlfriend. I figured, if the rest of my friends smoked, and looked so fucking cool doing it, then what was to stop me?
That was six years ago. In the grand scheme of thing, that’s just a blink of the eye. But for me, that is an omen about a number that is just getting larger. A number that will be greater than the amount of women I’ve slept with, larger than how many apartments I’ve lived in, more than the amount of times that I was dumped or cheated on. More than the number of bands I started, or got kicked out of. Slightly more than the number of schools I failed out of, hearts that I’ve broken, windows I’ve shattered, bones that I’ve splintered, abortions I’ve paid for, hands that I’ve held, shoulders I’ve cried on, men that I’ve blown, teachers I’ve slept with, bribes I’ve given police officers, drugs that I’ve tried, addictions I’ve kicked, or how many times that I have tried to kill myself. It’s a number that can’t get smaller, and even if I stopped now, who’s to say that I will stop forever, and that it won’t grow larger still?
I switched to rolling tobacco when I dropped out of college for the first time. I couldn’t afford the filters, but for the same price as a pack I got a pound of tobacco. The giant bag sat in my room getting steadily more empty, each miserably rolled square acting as sacrificial tribute to me, tobacco’s God. As I burned through money and took years off of my life, I started to think about how cool I really was.
I was a college drop out. I had to get tested for STDs. I didn’t have any. I was a failed drug dealer. I listened to weird college ambient rock music that no one who wasn’t fucked up enjoyed. I had no girlfriend, I had no car. I wore sunglasses while going into stores to hide the blood that was trying to push its way out through my eyes. I drank cheap whisky from the bottle.
It was the lifestyle I idolized back in high school, but suddenly it didn’t seem all that cool at all.